Anthony Bourdain's Valentine to Cooks and Food

You know that secret smile you carry around after reading a good book? Especially one that makes you laugh and ponder the food world we love so much? I just finished Anthony Bourdain’s memoir, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food, and I’ll be smiling all day.

He’s toned down the macho swagger I staggered through 10 years ago in Kitchen Confidential, but he’s still writing about his man-filled, foul-mouthed food world. Expect brutal honesty about what constitutes exciting restaurant food, why we should cook and what, no-holds-barred opinions on selected food writers and chefs, and dirt on restaurant reviewers who suck. In this self-deprecating, thoughtful memoir, Bourdain also looks back at his life and how he got to be so lucky to be a best-selling author, dad, and world traveller with a TV show.

You can’t help but laugh out loud, and often. After consuming an elaborate tasting menu at Per Se in New York by the chef he respects most, Thomas Keller, he writes:

“But look across the seat at the woman with you. Do you really think she’s breathlessly anticipating getting back to your apartment to ride you like the Pony Express? Or do you think it far more likely that (like you) she’s counting the seconds till she can [Read more…]

What it Takes to be a Recipe Developer for Bon Appetit

Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan

If you read my recent post on recipe writing that generated dozens of comments, you’ll see that commenter Victoria von Biel, executive editor of Bon Appetit, named a blogger who’s a killer recipe developer — the only food blogger who works for her. I’m going to tell you why.

First, let’s identify the golden girl. She’s Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, 35, founding editor of an Apartment Therapy sub-site, The Kitchn. (Her husband, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founded Apartment Therapy.)

And why does Gillingham-Ryan qualify? Here’s what von Biel told me during an interview at the recent International Food Blogger Conference: She wants someone who understands “international flavor combinations that are fresh and unusual.” Someone to whom she can say, “Do a casual Spanish dinner party for six people” and the writer will give her four complete menu ideas that contain “ideas significantly different from each other.”

When I asked Gillingham-Ryan why she succeeds with von Biel, she said it’s because “My guess is it’s because I give it to her straight, in as few words as possible, and I give her lots of choices.” For example, if von Biel asks for one savory and one sweet, Gillingham-Ryan will give her five recipe ideas for each.

Gillingham-Ryan had help on the way to the top. She had a mentor and teacher in her mother, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times food section, a home economist who later quit to become self-employed as a writer, recipe developer and food stylist. “I was around. I saw how it worked,” said Gillingham-Ryan.

When she wanted to become a writer, her mother introduced her to an editor friend of the family at Tribune Media Services, where Gillingham-Ryan wrote food features. “A lot of it was just luck,” she admitted. Later Gillingham-Ryan took the short course at the French Culinary Institute.

How a Recipe Developer Thinks

I asked Gillingham-Ryan how she comes up with recipe ideas. “I draw on my experience as a cook and eater and reader of Bon Appetit,” she began. “I think, ‘What have I eaten recently that’s really amazing?'” She will try to recreate it in her mind. She tries to remember what she thought at the time, such as “This would be better with orange peel, or with chicken thighs instead of lamb.” Using her memory as a starting point, she heads into the kitchen to improve upon or change the dish, accessing a taste library of which flavors work together best. She tries to stay away from fads (“Not doing a ton of cardamom right now. It’s been done.”).

When she’s brainstorming a recipe, she’ll turn to books as a reference to see how people she respects think, such as reading Shirley Corrhier or Harold McGee on how baking soda and powder work together. At this stage, she’s not tinkering with measurements yet, and she’s up on what’s already been done in the magazine. If she looks at similar recipes to dishes she’s imagining, it’s to decide what she would do differently to put a personal stamp on it. “I know the basic formula for most foods,” said Gillingham-Ryan. “A lot of that came from culinary school and the cooking afterwards.”

What is her advice for food bloggers and other food writers who want to build expertise as recipe developers? “People think they can just call themselves (recipe developers) and start doing it, but it just takes time to develop a craft.” She also recognizes what worked for her. Find people who will “take you in and show you the ropes.”

Food Blogger Pays for Expensive "Freebie" Restaurant Meal, In More Ways than One

The upscale eatery that invited the blogger to a meal.

Here’s a story that could have happened to any food blogger or restaurant reviewer who receives email invitations to restaurants.

A restaurant p.r. person invited a food blogger to a “food tasting session,”  where she said the restaurant would host him for lunch.

The food blogger couldn’t make it at the suggested time, and later sent an email saying he’d be in the following Sunday for brunch, not lunch. He did not confirm that he expected it would still be a “food tasting session” where he would be hosted.

Lesson #1: If you’re changing the game plan, seek confirmation that you can still be hosted. Just because a restaurant invited you to a specific event doesn’t mean [Read more…]

Food Writer Busted on Free Wedding Meal

Befriending chefs and purveyors when you’re a food writer can be perilous. Worse yet, the practice can come back to bite you in the butt.

And that’s exactly what happened to Josh Ozersky, a food writer who got married recently in New York and showed poor judgement when planning for his wedding.

The trouble started when he accepted food from his buddies in the business as  presents: free bread, dips, seafood, lasagna, strip loins, and a free place to hold the event.

Then he devoted his column on Time magazine’s website to promoting the food and purveyors, never mentioning that his buddies supplied the goods for free, and saying most caterers “aren’t really good cooks” anyway.

Another food writer, Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice, busted him in an open letter, suggesting the food and venue could have cost $24,000 and asking whether he paid. And then the New York Times did a fascinating story about not only Ozersky but the whole issue of restaurants getting an increasing number of requests for free meals.

Time got so many comments on Ozersky’s column that they [Read more…]

Writing Contest: Similes Make Food Writing Fun

It’s been a while since I’ve held a food writing contest on this blog, so I thought I’d blast out another one, just for fun. This time, let’s have a simile writing contest.

Similes are comparisons that starts with “like” or “as,” for comparing two unlike things. Why would you want to use them? You need as many tools as possible in your writing toolbox. Similes are a welcome alternative to adjectives. They’re playful, making your writing fun to read. Restaurant reviewers are particularly good employers of similes because [Read more…]

Alan Richman, the "Most Decorated Food Writer in America"

richman_240You might have read in my last post on James Beard nominees that Alan Richman, a contributing writer for GQ magazine since 1986, received three nomations.

That’s nothing. His bio on GQ calls him “the most decorated food writer in America.” He has already won 14 James Beard awards, with 29 nominations overall. A congratulatory post from the GQ editors compared him to Meryl Streep, who has won twice, with  16 nominations.

Richman, who started his writing career as a sports reporter in Philadelphia, eats in restaurants as his main job. In one year he might dine in Bangkok; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Paris; Beijing; Los Angeles; and New Haven, Connecticut.

He’s a master of the long form, but it must be relative. In an interview with Chow, Richman bemoans its demise.”We’re starting to lose something by stories [Read more…]

Yelp's New Low in Restaurant Reviewing


Despite hand-wringing about the decline of print restaurant reviewing, few people seem to care. When I teach food writing, hardly anyone asks about becoming a critic now, and a post I wrote on how the net influences restaurant reviewing elicited no response.

Maybe it’s about the economy. Food bloggers cook, perhaps because it’s less expensive and more hands-on than eating out. Due to lack of funds, restaurant reviewers now fall into two camps:  the few remaining newspaper employees and freelancers reimbursed for meals; and hobbyists, who write on websites like Yelp.

So please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems no one wants to be a restaurant reviewer anymore. And certainly this news about Yelp doesn’t elevate the profession.

What news, you ask? It’s called Yelpmail. On this post from Chez Geek, a [Read more…]